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Eiji Sawamura

Eiji Sawamura

As a Japanese citizen now living in America, I’m a bit unnerved by this new rule being instituted by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the Japanese professional baseball league. In an effort to prevent a mass exodus of talented amateur players from Japan to the United States, the owners of the twelve teams in the NPB have decided to ban any player who chooses to play overseas straight out of high school for three years. For those who go abroad straight out of college or their company team*, the ban would be for two years.

*Quick explanation. In Japan, company teams have their own leagues and it’s taken very seriously. It’s fairly common for men to be hired for a job simply based on his ability to play sports. It’s a bit more than the company-sponsored softball games here in the States.

This whole thing is a reaction to the news that Junichi Tazawa, a 22-year old righty pitcher for Nippon Oil (yes, this is one of those company teams), has decided to forgo playing in the NPB in favor of coming to America in the hopes of making a career in MLB.

Junichi Tazawa

Junichi Tazawa

Under this new rule, if Tazawa succeeds in signing a contract with a MLB team – which is a near certainty at this point – but fails in his quest to become a big leaguer, he’d be barred from playing professionally in his home country for two years.

Now, excuse the hyperbole, but this is borderline insanity.

Look, I get it. From the NPB’s perspective, this is a matter of “survival”. From Hideo Nomo to Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japanese baseball has been losing its biggest national stars for over a decade now and consequently, fan interest is waning. Television ratings are down as well as attendance, and its becoming more and more difficult for the league to be able to turn a profit.

As someone who began playing and following the game before he even knew that there was a world outside Japan, this decline in popularity bothers me. I want baseball to prosper over there. I feel a sense of pride when I see my countrymen succeeding on the international stage, whether it be as players in MLB or as a national team at the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics. I know that Ichiro can be a jerk who can’t walk to save himself! I don’t care! He’s Ichiro!

But what overrides this sense of national pride and love of baseball is my disdain for this kind of utilitarian nationalism that strikes me as downright immoral. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an 18-year old with incredible baseball skills wanting to challenge himself at the highest level possible, alongside the very same players he idolized from afar. And to get paid to do so. Why should he get punished? Because he wasn’t willing to help a baseball team that he doesn’t even work for turn a profit? Are you kidding me?

I do not like what this says about the NPB. This is not only somewhat fascistic, it’s also potentially short-sighted. I don’t think that this will prevent those who feel strongly about playing in the MLB as soon as possible from crossing the Pacific. And if they do and fail to catch on, they lose two years of development time at the professional level, thus lowering the level of competition in the NPB. They’re shooting themselves in the foot and they’re looking like total bullies in the process. I just don’t see any upside from this at all.

4 Responses to “Dear NPB: You’re Acting Crazy. Please Stop.”

  1. The only problem is that other baseball leagues who have been harvested and used as a minor leagues for the MLB are now defunct.

    If the popularity plummets in Japan, with a lot of teams already in the red, that’s would be disastrous. Yes, I too would like to see the best of the best day in and day out. However, part of the reason baseball isn’t as popular as basketball or soccer around the world is because it’s becoming more and more like there’s only one league. People can be up in arms about Olympics getting rid of baseball all they want, but it’s becoming a self inflicted problem.

    If Japan goes under, Korea and Taiwan aren’t nearly at that level, and China is just starting. Most of the Latin America leagues are used as Winter Leagues or Minor Leagues or have folded already. Just seems to me that while I see soccer and basketball rapidly expanding, I see zero growth in baseball internationally.

    The problem is that a 3 year ban probably won’t dissuade the elite players from leaving anyway, since they will just ask for 3 year contracts.

    Either way, I get your point, I just think the constant craving to harvest talent from everywhere around the world is sorta killing leagues. If Korea continues to improve, they’re next.

  2. I do sympathize with these leagues. I really do. But what’s the alternative? The rules of the global market have changed over the last decade. Are these countries supposed to pretend they’re Cuba and bar athletes from leaving? This is a small step in that direction.

    And I disagree a bit with your assertion that baseball isn’t growing internationally. Australia and England (despite the omission of baseball in the London Olympics) do have a growing base.

    If the NPB fails, I’d be upset. But the fault will not lie with the players leaving. It will lie with the owners and executives who were unable to adapt to globalization.

  3. I’ll agree with Australia, but I have friends in England, and baseball is still sort of a joke there. Just like American football.

    It’s fine that the MLB is getting the best players, I just worry that if it kills the popularity of the sport, less kids will be interested in it. Like sumo is still Japan’s national sport, but I don’t see the passion for it that used to exist.

    And yeah, soccer is arguably the most globalized sport. And some smaller leagues do give complete control over players before a certain age group before they are allowed to negotiate with bigger clubs. It’s an option.

  4. Nick Kapur says:

    kensai, I hear what you are saying, but really what is the difference between soccer in Japan (which is booming) and baseball in Japan (which is declining)? The J-league is in a similar position to NPB, because all of the best players go play soccer in Europe, but that doesn’t stop people from following the Japanese soccer league. I think if anything, Japanese baseball has gotten too good – in soccer, only one or two Japanese players are good enough to go to Europe, where in baseball the number is larger. But what I’m saying is that I’m just not certain that baseball is doing things differently than soccer or basketball – all the best players in baseketball go to the NBA too, after all. I think there are other causes to NPB’s decline, and they are just trying to scapegoat it on players going to the majors.

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